For the past sixteen months, the Wikimedia Foundation has been having uncomfortable conversations about how we handle controversial imagery in our projects — including, a few weeks ago, the staging of a referendum on an image hiding feature requested by our Board. The purpose of this post is not to talk specifically about the referendum results or the image hiding feature: for that, I’ll be talking in more official venues. The purpose of this post is to step back and assess where we’re at, and to call for a change in tone and emphasis in our discussions.
Please note also that due to the nature of the topic, you may find yourself offended by this post, and/or the materials linked from it.
In March 2010, editors on the German Wikipedia ran a poll asking their colleagues whether they would support a rule restricting the types of material that could appear on the German home page. Thirteen voted in favour of restrictions, and 233 voted against. A few weeks later, the German Wikipedia featured the article about the vulva on its home page, which included a close-up photograph of an open vagina. Twenty-three minutes after the article went up, a reader in Berlin wrote “you can’t be serious?!,” and called for the image to be taken down. This initiated an on-wiki discussion that eventually reached 73,000 words – the length of a shortish novel. It included a straw poll in which 29 people voted to remove the image and 30 voted to keep it. The image was kept, and the article remained on the front page for its full 24 hours.
A few months later, in June, the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees began to discuss how the Wikimedia community was handling controversial imagery. Why? Because some people seemed to be using Commons to stockpile commercial porn; because the German community had put a close-up photo of a vagina on its homepage; and because upskirt photos and controversial editorial cartoons seemed to be being categorized in ways that seemed designed to be provocative, and the people who complained about them were being shot down.
The Wikimedia Foundation was concerned that a kind of market failure might be happening — that the Wikimedia community, which is generally so successful at achieving good decision quality through a consensus process, was for some reason failing to handle the issue of controversial material well. It set out to explore what was going on, and whether we needed to handle controversial imagery differently.
That triggered community members’ fears of censorship and editorial interference. And so we find ourselves today, sixteen months later, locked in angry debate. At a meeting in Nuremberg a few weeks ago, German Wikipedian User:Carbidfischer furiously denounced our Board Chair Ting Chen. The other day –as far as I know for the first time ever– somebody called someone else an asshole on one of our mailing lists. User:Niabot created this parody image. It’s unpleasant and unconstructive, and if you’re familiar with transactional analysis, or with the work done by the Arbinger Institute, you’ll recognize the bad patterns here.
The purpose of this post is to figure out why we aren’t handling this problem well, and how we can get back on track.
So: backing up.
Is there a problem with how the Wikimedia projects handle potentially-objectionable material? I say yes. The problems that led the Board to want to address this issue still exist: they have not been solved.
So what’s the solution? I have read pages upon pages of community discussion about the issue, and I sympathize and agree with much of what’s been said. Wikipedia is not, and should never be, censored. It should not be editorially interfered with.
But refusing censorship doesn’t mean we have no standards. Editors make editorial judgments every day, when we assess notability of topics, reliability of sources, and so forth. The German Wikipedia particularly is known to have extremely rigorous standards.
So why do we refrain from the expression of editorial judgment on this one issue?
I think there are two major reasons.
First, we have a fairly narrow range of views represented in our discussions.
We know that our core community represents just a sliver of society: mainly well-educated young men in wealthy countries, clustered in Europe and North America. It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, when we skew liberal/libertarian/permissive, especially on issues related to sexuality and religion. Our demographic and attitudinal narrowness is a shame because at the heart of the projects is the belief that many eyes make all bugs shallow and yet, we’re not practicing what we preach. Instead, we’ve become an echo chamber: we hear only voices like our own, expressing points of view we already agree with. People who believe other things fall silent or abandon the conversation or are reduced to impotent rage. Or, and even likelier, they never made it to the table in the first place.
Second, we are confusing editorial judgment with censorship.
Censorship is imposed from outside. Editorial judgment is something we do every day in the projects. Applying editorial judgment to potentially-objectionable material is something that honourable journalists and educators do every day: it is not the same as censorship, nor does it constitute self-censorship.
In newsrooms, editors don’t vote on whether they personally are offended by material they know their readers will find objectionable, and they don’t make decisions based on whether the angry letters outnumber the supportive ones. They exercise empathy, and at their best they are taking a kind of ‘balance of harm’ approach — aiming to maximize benefit and minimize cost. The job is to provide useful information to as many people as possible, and they know that if people flee in disgust, they won’t benefit from anything the newsroom is offering. That doesn’t mean newsrooms publish only material that’s comfortable for their readers: it means they aim to exercise good judgment, and discomfit readers only when –on balance– discomfort is warranted.
How does that apply to us? It’s true that when people go to the article about the penis, they probably expect to see an image of a penis, just like they do when they look it up in a reference book in their public library. It’s also true that they probably wouldn’t benefit much from a gallery of cellphone camera shots of penises, and that’s why we don’t have those galleries on our articles. In lots of areas, we are currently doing a good job.
But not always.
When an editor asks if the image cleavage_(breasts).jpg really belongs in the article about clothing necklines, she shouldn’t get shouted down about prudishness: we should try to find better images that don’t overly sexualize a non-sexual topic. When an editor writes “you can’t be serious?!” after vagina,anus,perineum_(detail).jpg is posted on the front page, the response shouldn’t be WP:NOTCENSORED: we should have a discussion about who visits the homepage, and we should try to understand, and be sensitive to, their expectations and circumstances and needs. When we get thousands of angry e-mails about our decision to republish the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, we should acknowledge the offence the cartoons cause, and explain why, on balance, we think they warrant publication anyway. None of that is censorship. It’s just good judgment. It demonstrates transparency, a willingness to be accountable, and a desire to help and serve our readers — and it would earn us trust.
I believe that in our discussions to date, we’ve gotten ourselves derailed by the censorship issue. I know that some people believe that the Wikimedia Foundation is intending to coercively intervene into the projects, in effect overruling the judgment of the editorial community. I don’t see it that way, I regret that others do, and I dislike the ‘authoritarian parent / rebellious adolescent’ dynamic we seem to be having trouble resisting.
Wikipedia is not censored. It should never be censored. That doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to be thoughtful and responsible.
So: what needs to happen?
We need to have a discussion about how to responsibly handle objectionable imagery. That discussion doesn’t need to happen with the Wikimedia Foundation (or at least, not solely with the Wikimedia Foundation). The projects should be talking internally about how to avoid unnecessarily surprising and offending readers, without compromising any of our core values.
Those community members who are acting like provocateurs and agitators need to stop. Demonizing and stereotyping people we disagree with pushes everyone into extremist positions and makes a good outcome much less likely. We need to look for common ground and talk calmly and thoughtfully with each other, staying rooted in our shared purpose. Some editors have been doing that throughout our discussions: I am seriously grateful to those people, and I wish others would follow their example.
“Wikipedia is not censored” is true. And, we need to stop using it as a conversation killer. It’s the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it.
We need to set aside anxieties about who’s in charge, and quit fighting with each other. We need to be aware of who’s not at the table. We need to bring in new voices and new perspectives that are currently lacking, and really listen to them. Those community members who’ve been afraid to talk need to speak up, and those who’ve been driven away need to come back.
The purpose of this post is to call for that responsible engagement.
Like I said at the top of this post, my purpose in writing this is not to talk about the referendum results or the image hiding feature: for that, I’ll be talking in more official venues.